Part 6

by BKWillis


'You know that life really
Takes its toll
And a poet's gut reaction
Is to search his very soul.
So much damn confusion
Before my eyes
But nothing seems to faze me
And this one still survives.'
--The Ramones


It sounded like the setup to a really bad joke: 'What do you get if
you cross a succubus with a berserking demon?'

One obvious punchline that lent itself to Nyssaias's imagination
was the old classic, 'Nothing. There are some things even a
succubus won't do.' Ha ha. Not only stale, but illogical in the
sense that it was a known fact that succubi would have 'relations'
with quite literally anybody, changing their form or even sex to suit
the particular object of their attentions. It was what they did, their
raison d'etre, after all. What point in being a demon of lust and
desire if not to indulge in those very sins at every opportunity?

Nyssaias knew about succubi, as did virtually everyone who had
any involvement with the Divinities. Shameless creatures they
were, revelling in the scandals they invariably spawned. 'Cherche
la succubus' was the rule of thumb when tracking some disgraceful
event among the Divine. So, to word a joke in that way could be a
singularly scathing comment on berserking demons, that even a
succubus wouldn't bed one.

With a shake of her head, Nyssaias cleared away that pointless line
of thought. This was no time for dumb jokes, and besides, the
question was academic. The answer was, you got Embericles,
whatever Embericles actually was. That was the result of crossing
a succubus and a berserking demon. The succubus part she could
see, she supposed. It would certainly explain where Embericles got
her looks, minus the succubus horns and fangs, of course. What
would she have inherited from her father? Nyssaias knew nothing
at all of berserking demons, and the _Encyclopedia Celestica_ had
provided little further enlightenment. Berserking demons were
responsible for inspiring fits of insane battle rage in mortals, which
was obvious enough. They were also very low-ranking demons,
without even a guild or a dispatch office of their own. It had said
little about their appearance beyond 'of standard demonic form',
which was pretty vague, the moreso since Nyssaias had actually
met very few demons in her short life.

So, okay. Embericles's mother had the power to evoke lust and
desire in others and her father inspired blind rage. But it was
_fear_ that Embericles seemed to create in people...

Or was that all? Nyssaias thought back to the conversations she'd
had with others about the girl. There was more than fear in there.
There was a sort of loathing, too. And... hate, possibly? Nyssaias
wasn't all that familiar with those emotions except abstractly, but
that seemed to fit, as well.

Negative emotions, then. _Unhappy_ emotions. She was some
sort of demon that inspired all-around 'bad' feelings in people.

But that would mean that Embericles was a Divinity. And if she
was a Divinity, she'd have been registered on the Census Rolls.
All the Divine were, from the Allfather down to the lowliest demi-
gremlin. She wasn't on the Rolls, therefore she wasn't Divine.

But her parents were Divine. And a child of the Divine was
Divine, period.

The information was making no sense, therefore either the data was
false or other data was lacking. And the only way to remedy either
situation was to do a little leg-work -- or wing-work, weather


Baker Avenue wasn't the worst part of town, but that didn't seem to
be for lack of trying. The buildings were for the most part middling-
old, that awkward age at which the structure is neither new enough
nor 'classic' enough to warrant major renovation and so is allowed
to start the long, slow process of succumbing to time and weather
and ill-will. Washed-out grays and browns were the dominant
colors, both of buildings and people.

There were more people walking the street than Nyssaias would
have expected to find so early on a Sunday, but there was little of
the normal crowd-hum in evidence. Only a few seemed to be going
about with any set purpose in mind: a few shoppers heading to or
from grocery stores, bags clutched protectively to their bodies; a
man reading the morning's _Voice of the Workers_, a suspicious
bulge under his shirt and hard eyes flicking up from the newsprint
every few seconds; a gaggle of dirty children scuffling and cat-
calling on their way to some backyard ball-game. The rest idled
around corner kiosks and against grimy storefronts, seldom
speaking save for low-voiced mutters to some crony, sending hard
looks her way as she walked by. She tried smiling and waving
at first, but stopped after receiving mostly scowls in reply.

Almost everyone she saw was human, she noted, or at least
humanoid. A hideously-scarred Terileptil beggar and the carcass
of a Dalek travel machine, stripped and set on cinderblocks, were
the only signs that she wasn't down in some Earth-Reality slum.

She found #13 not far from where the street dead-ended next to
the rail yards. It had been a handsome building at one time, but
that time had passed long ago. The tenement's brickwork had gone
the color of industrial smog and the quaint Victorian touches and
flourishes in its trimmings were for the most part rotted away. The
tiny yard was weed-choked and overdue for cutting. A rusty sign
just off the sidewalk bore the name 'Wild Rose Arms', a name which
seemed terribly ironic at first, until Nyssaias caught sight of the
trellis beside the front door. The splintered lattice sagged under
the weight of an intertwined mass of climbing rose vines, with
white, red, pink, and yellow blossoms all tumbled over and around
one another in a beautifully chaotic mass, the only truly bright and
vibrant colors on the whole block.

There was a man sitting in the doorway, she saw as she mounted
the steps into the yard. He might have been seventy, or possibly
just a hard-life fifty-five, with seamed jowls and tiny dark eyes sunk
deeply into his face. A few strands of oily gray hair were combed
across his head in a wasted effort at covering his bare, spotted
scalp. He sat kicked-back in a cheap plastic patio chair, whittling
on a chunk of stovewood.

"Excuse me?" Nyssaias asked as she came up.

The man just grunted noncommitally, pointing with his knife at the
'No Vacancies' sign on the door.

"Er, no. Actually, I'm here about a tenant of yours. The girl who
lives in apartment E?"

Somewhat to her surprise, the man actually seemed pleased to hear
that. He immediately set his carving aside and faced her with a
lopsided and snaggle-toothed grin. "Oh, aye! Bit early, ye are.
Weren't expectin' yez f'r another week." He wiped his hand on his
stained shorts, then held it out expectantly, palm-up.

"Pardon?" she asked, unsure what to make of this.

His face fell just a bit. "Are ye no' here wiv th' rent money, then?"

"No sir." Seeing a chance to possibly pick up a bit of information,
she went on, "Was someone supposed to be bringing Embericles's
rent to you?"

"'Twere what I said, weren't it?" The old man hocked and spat
toward the rose trellis. "They be th' only ones what comes by for
that one, aye. To bring th' rent and mayhap bide a while." He
suddenly threw back his head in a braying phlegmy laugh. "But
never long! No' wiv _that_ chippie, aye? She's no' th' socializin'
sort, she ain't!"

"Who is it that comes by?" she prodded, but the old man's laughter
abruptly cut out again as he fixed her with a needle-sharp stare.

"And why is it ye'd know, lass? If ye've no' th' rent money, what
affair of yers be it?" But before she could answer, some of the
wariness seemed to drain out of him and he went on, "But then,
what affair be it of mine what ye'd know? I've no duties to th'
Brat, save providin' th' room, and there's worse ways to pass a
dull mornin' than runnin' jaws wiv a young chippie. Ye makes a
better look-at than that wad of liveoak, if naught else." He spat
again, this time at the wood he'd been whittling on.

"Thanks... I suppose..." Nyssaias wasn't entirely sure how to take
that, so decided to consider it a compliment of sorts and move on.
"So, who is it that brings the money by?" she tried again.

"'Tis two I see most common. Names I knowed once, but since
forgot. Th' Bimbo and Four-Eyes, I call 'em, though only to
meself, ye understand. Th' Bimbo's a little thing, no' much bigger
than yerself, and allus decked out to th' nines. She's a set of wings,
like th' Brat, and a set of--" He stopped, a leer twisting his sagging
features. "Heh. Ye gets th' idea. Now Four-Eyes, he's a long,
skinny type, allus done up in a big coat, no' mattering on th'
weather. I call him Four-Eyes, on account of these poncy little
spectacles he's wearin'. Scholarly type, mayhap, or mayhap just
a pansy." He paused to wipe his nose on a fraying rag. "Anyway,
'twere th' wings of yez that made me think ye was here wiv th' rent.
Betimes 'tis others that come in place of th' Bimbo, and many be
winged. Kin, mayhap, or mayhap just likewise foreign. 'Tis naught
to me. So long as th' Brat's rent be paid up, I care no' a whit who's

"Ah, yes, quite." Nyssaias looked past him, into the dingy hallway
beyond. "So, do you know if the Brat-- I mean, if Embericles is in
right now?"

"Don't know, don't care," the landlord said, shrugging. "I'd
suspect she's no' here, but yer welcome to look for yerself." He
jerked a thumb toward the stairs at the end of the hall. "'Partment
E's upstairs, back left corner."

The inside of the tenement proved to be every bit as dingy and
ill-kept as the outside, and the upstairs was no improvement.
The tinny noise of a TV turned up too loud carried through the
thin walls of apartment G, filling the whole upper hall with the
racket of some chat show or other. Something tugged at
Nyssaias's shoe and she looked down to see that she'd stepped
in a wad of gum that had been ground into the tattered rug.

Embericles's door was no different from the others, which was
vaguely disappointing in its way, although Nyssaias wasn't sure
why. What had she expected, after all? A skull-and-crossbones
doorknocker? Iron chains and flame-spouting gargoyles? A
'Keep Out' sign with little frowny-faces on it? Feeling just a hint
of tightness in her chest, she raised her knuckles to the door...

...and stopped. Was this even the right thing to do, snooping
around for info on a person and then tracking them down and
pestering them at home? Quite a start to a friendship that'd be.

Then again, things were already off to a rocky start. The only way
to make anything change was to sieze the initiative, and that meant
charging ahead.

But on the other hand, she couldn't _force_ someone to be her
friend. That was self-contradictory on the face of it.

But back on the first hand, she had needs, herself. The need for
answers. Denying that need wouldn't make it go away; it would
only get worse.

...but that smacked of _using_ another person...

...but it was to _help_ Embericles, not hurt her...

...but if a grown person wanted help, they'd ask for it...

...but people didn't always know they needed helping...

But one thing _was_ for certain, and that as that standing in front
of someone's door with your fist out while you argued with
yourself was bound to look pretty silly. Nyssaias blew her bangs
away from her eyes. If she was going to be indecisive now, this
was probably not the place to do it. Better to go someplace a bit
more congenial, a bit less socially awkward, and quite a bit safer
if she had thinking to do. She spun on her heel to leave.

And found herself staring straight at Embericles.

The bat-winged girl stood silently, regarding her with those pitiless
blue eyes. She was in jeans and an old 'Boogiepop Phantom' shirt
with the sleeves cut off, the casual ordinariness of the attire
somewhat jarring to Nyssaias in the same way as her apartment
door had been. Her arms were full of bagged groceries from the
store down the block.

For what seemed a long moment, neither girl said anything, only
the chatter of the too-loud telly filling the awkward silence.
Nyssaias felt her cheeks flush red, while Embericles's expression
remained rigid and unreadable as stone. The girl's silence seemed
faintly accusatory to Nyssaias, although that may have just been
her own conscience poking at her.

"Erm, hi," she managed at last, almost wincing as her words broke
the tableau. "I thought I'd... That is to say... I was just, uh..."
Embericles started to open her mouth, but Nyssaias just sighed and
held up a hand. "Wait. You don't have to say it. I'm in your way,
right?" She stepped aside as the redhead nodded.

Embericles thrust one of the bags at her as she came up to the
door. "Here," she said shortly. "Make yourself useful."

"Wha--? Oh, right." She held the sack as Embericles unlocked
the door, then followed her inside with it.

For the third time, Nyssaias found herself reeling that vague sense
of disappointment at the ordinariness she was confronted with.
The apartment was an unassuming one-room affair, with a small
kitchenette at one end and an old iron-framed bed at the other.
It could have been any not-very-well-off teenager's room, really.
There were all the usual teen trappings: a cheap portable stereo;
a dusty TV/video player combo; a shelf full of paperback novels;
some clothes on the floor; and a handful of posters (Maetel in a
swimsuit, Red Sonya, and a big one of Captain Harlock). There was
also a thick, fake-leather photo album beside the TV on the room's
single low table.

Embericles took the sack back from her and began sorting groceries
into the sparse cabinets, but said nothing. Nyssaias decided to
take that as an invitation to stay unless told otherwise. She
puttered around the room a bit, eyeing the furnishings, Embericles
not giving her another look. Shrugging at that, she picked up the
photo album.

Strangely, the album turned out to be full of postcards, each one
carefully fastened to a clear plastic sheet and covered with
protective cling-wrap, like a child's collection of baseball cards.
And with a start, she found that she recognized most of the
pictures on them. Almost all bore images of different landmarks
and points of interest in the City of Dreams and its adjoining lands.
There was the Grand Tower of Commerce, and the Bifrost Bridge,
and the Hundred Spires of the High Collegium, and -- a sight that
stirred more than a hint of homesickness in Nyssaias's breast --
the scintillant dome of the Temple of Remembrance.

Curiosity roused, she scanned the backs of several of them, to
read the terse notes written there.

See you soon,
Be good and I'll bring a present!
Hope school's going well.
Got my promotion! I'll tell you about it when I come by!

The book was abruptly yanked out of her hands. Embericles gave
her a blankly mistrustful stare and set it back on the table, sliding
it behind the TV set.

"So, what are you doing here?" she asked, her bored tone only
slightly tinged with any feeling.

"I just thought I'd come by and visit you."

"That isn't an answer. You have some purpose in mind."

"I just... I just want to get to know you, that's all..." Nyssaias
looked at her feet. She hadn't realized she was twisting her toes
back and forth. She made herself stop it, but didn't notice when
she started doing it again a moment later.

"Again, that's no answer." Embericles's tone was flint-hard. "You
want something from me. What is it?"

A heat rose in Nyssaias's face, and it wasn't embarrassment this
time. "I just want to get to know you, like I said." The words came
out more curtly, more snapped-off than she could remember
speaking to anyone before. "Is that some sort of crime? I'd like to
be your friend, darn it! And I'm trying really hard at it, but you
aren't making it any easier for me!"

Embericles folded her arms across her chest and cocked her head,
expression never wavering. "And what makes you so keen on
me?" she asked. "I know it ain't my charming personality, so
what? You got a thing for sympathy-cases, or something? I
already told you, I'm not your social-work project."

"And like I already told _you_, I don't pity you, I admire you.
Whatever else you are, you're one of the strongest people I've ever
met -- the way you fend for yourself and don't let others get to you,
I mean. And such a talented writer! What's not to admire?"

"I think we could both list plenty of things to answer that
question," the redhead answered quietly.

"Well, maybe." Nyssaias stammered for a second, uncertain
whether she was taking the right tack, but too far in to change
course now. "But besides that, we have so much in common!"

"Do we?" The room seemed to grow about five degrees chillier.

"Sure we do. Aside from being good at writing, we both have
wings. And we're both..." She paused for a heartbeat, deciding
on the best phrasing. "...related to the Divine. Why, your mother
even lives in my old hometown."

"Does she, now?" Voice and eyes had both taken on a positively
glacial feel.

"Y-yes, she does. I, uh, kind of found out about her, you know,
being a succubus and all. I mean, not that there's anything wrong
with being one. They're part of the Divine Plan, and all, and fulfill a
very useful function... My stepmother's a Wood Nymph, you
know? She might even know your mum. Maybe they, uh, went to
school together... or something... Aheh." The cold silence was
beginning to get to Nyssaias. She had the feeling that she had
just stepped into a pit of quicksand, but that it was too late to do
anything but flail around and hope for the best. "And, er, I see that
you have an interest in the City of Dreams, too. That's my
hometown, like I said, and I could tell you all about it, or something,
if you... want..." She sighed. "I'm making a complete hash of this,
aren't I? A 'critical malfunction', Father would say."

"Do you want to know what we have in common?" Embericles said
quietly. "Really in common?"

Nyssaias nodded.

The redhead pointed at the floor. "We're standing on the same
patch of ground." She waved a hand aimlessly about. "We're
breathing the same air." Those baleful blue eyes locked on
Nyssaias's own as a hint of restrained anger crept into Embericles's
tone. "And besides that... nothing. You have _everything_, and
I have _this_." Her gesture encompassed the whole squalid room.
"We're _nothing_ alike! You get to be whatever you want to be,
and I don't get to be _anything_, do you understand? We might
as well be on different planets. Your life is all about getting what
you want and being who you want, and mine is about getting
nothing and being nothing, okay? I can't be what I should be, and
I can't be anything else, either, so _nothing_ is what I get. And
maybe you need friends to find whatever it is you're looking for in
life, but I can find all the nothing I've got coming to me just fine by
myself. We're opposites, like night and day, and you can't have
both at the same time. So, take yourself--" Here, for some reason,
Embericles's chin began to quiver and just a _hint_ of a wet
shimmer shone in her eyes. "--and your _God-damned_ City of
Dreams, and go back where you belong!"

The silence that followed this seemed to grow ever more
oppressive, and the light from the single window grew dim as
though a cloud had passed over the Sun. The thin walls carried
through the sound of the next-door neighbor -- an old woman,
by the voice -- beginning to sob as she frantically counted off
the Rosary. A baby screamed in the apartment with the too-loud
telly, which someone shut off as they tried to shush the child.
A pair of crows on the roof let out an abrupt screech and fled
into the sky.

Nyssaias felt the tears starting, but couldn't hold them back.
"I'm sor-sorry for bothering you, then" she sniffled. "I just... I
just wanted..."

She had told herself she wouldn't just run out the door, but she
ended up doing it anyway.

(to be concluded)


Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 7 - Part 8

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